Latin Americans Wonder If Democrats Are Traders

By Sibylla Brodzinsky and Peter S. Goodman
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, November 23, 2006

MEDELLIN, Colombia -- At the CI Jeans factory, where 3,900 people make their livings turning bolts of denim into trousers bound for the United States, the American market -- land of the customer -- appears to be slipping away.

In September, with a proposed trade deal between Colombia and the United States uncertain and orders flagging, the factory fired 320 workers. Now, the pact appears to be in peril. Democrats are set to take control of the U.S. Congress, speaking for a segment of the American public that is worried about globalization. The incoming leaders have pledged to redraft the terms of global trade.

Yesterday, the Bush administration signed the proposed deal, but leading Democrats promptly attacked it, underscoring growing doubts in Washington that Congress will approve the pact. Here in Colombia and next door in Peru, which awaits congressional approval for its own trade treaty, anxiety runs high.

"We watch the news and we're nervous about what might happen with what we send to the United States," said Janeth Palacio Ramirez, 35, who supports her 15-year-old daughter and her elderly parents by punching zipper stops onto 7,000 pairs of jeans a day, earning about $200 a month. "Everything we make here goes there, so if there are problems with exports, we'll all lose our jobs."

As Democrats prepare to reshape U.S. trade policy, the impact is being felt far from the Carolina mill towns and rust-belt factories that are a perennial focus of domestic concern.

Addressing fears that too many jobs are being sacrificed at home, the new Democratic leadership wants to slow the worldwide effort, which the United States has led since 1947, to lower import tariffs that hinder trade.

The fortunes of Colombia and Peru -- home to more than 72 million people -- may hang in the balance. So, too, might the nature of American engagement with Latin America, regional experts say. The rejection of trade pacts with these countries would humiliate their leaders at a time when they stand as bulwarks against the anti-American populism pressed by Venezuela's president, Hugo Chavez.

Latin America was already recoiling at the prospect of the United States fencing its southern border against illegal immigration. Now, some see the nation walling off its huge marketplace, rescinding the promise of trade, long proffered by the Bush and Clinton administrations as a means of furthering development.

"If you really look at the U.S. agenda in Latin America, trade is the only positive," said Michael Shifter, vice president for policy at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. "The rest is immigration, anti-narcotics. It's all negatives." Latin Americans, he said, may well start to question "how serious Americans are about having a constructive relationship."

President Alvaro Uribe of Colombia has championed the free-trade agreement and cultivated a friendship with President Bush. The death of the deal would undermine his standing and deprive Colombia of a crucial source of livelihood -- export dollars -- as it confronts American pressure to eradicate cocaine production.

"This would be a disaster," said Sergio Clavijo, a former Colombian deputy finance minister, who noted that exports to its neighbor Venezuela are already threatened by continued tensions with Chavez. Without export growth, "narco-trafficking will be the only way out."

In Peru, the trade pact has been embraced by a new president, Alan Garcia, who put aside years of skepticism. Garcia served as Peru's president before, in the late 1980s. Then, he attacked trade deals and derided the United States as an imperial power. Now, Garcia is listening to Hernando de Soto, an economist who preaches liberalized trade as a means of attacking poverty.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company